Statistician Greg Ridgeway: New Deputy Director of National Institute of Justice
Amstat News invited new National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Deputy Director Greg Ridgeway to respond to the following questions about his role in this position. Ridgeway, an ASA member, also speaks to what he, as a statistician, brings to NIJ’s strategy to strengthen its science mission.
Greg Ridgeway earned his PhD in statistics from the University of Washington and his BS in statistics from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Before joining the National Institute of Justice, Ridgeway was a statistician at the RAND Corporation and directed RAND’s criminal justice research program. He specializes in the analysis of criminal justice issues, most prominently policing, gun violence prevention, and drug policy.
How did you get involved in criminal justice research?
I started at the RAND Corporation pretty much fresh out of graduate school. I found that many statisticians were already doing good work in public policy areas such as health, education, and national security. However, I found a near vacuum in criminal justice research and a lot of opportunities for statistical work. Early on, I thought my analyses of gun violence in East Los Angeles and racial profiling were having an impact. And that led to new opportunities and more criminal justice research questions. The justice system continues to be a topic with a lot of room for more statisticians.
What about this position appealed to you?
There were three primary reasons I took the job. First, NIJ is the lead federal agency for criminal justice research. It has a lot of influence on which direction the field goes. The idea of having a prominent role in that process was very appealing to me. Second, I think the criminal justice system is a fascinating world in which to conduct research and, while I could have continued my research at RAND, I saw moving to NIJ as an opportunity to be exposed to new people and new ideas. Even my RAND colleagues said that spending some time in government is essential to really understand public policy. Already, I have learned a lot. Last, both current and former NIJ staff who I talked to thought I had a lot to contribute to NIJ. It is always nice to feel needed.
The 2010 National Academies (NAS) Report, “Strengthening the National Institute of Justice,” made many recommendations to strengthen the science mission and research infrastructure of NIJ, noting resource, autonomy, and authority challenges. Did that report’s findings play into your decision to accept the position?
The NAS report was released just before John Laub, NIJ’s current director joined and provided a good starting place for him to examine and map out NIJ’s future. The creation of my position was part of his strategy to strengthen NIJ’s science mission, a way of securing a senior scientific leader. I had been an NIJ grantee for many years and thought I knew NIJ quite well. However, the NAS report showed the complicated environment in which NIJ and its staff work. Besides the resource constraints, which will always exist, NIJ is unique among federal science agencies in that it also has a mission to serve the practitioner community. That was very much the kind of organization I wanted to join.
Why do you think they hired a statistician? What about your background and experience appealed to NIJ?
I’m sure they did not set out to find a statistician. That is just an added bonus! For me, being a statistician was a pathway. At RAND, I worked on dozens of projects on gangs, guns, drugs, policing, but data analysis was the theme across all of these. While some of these analyses were ending up in statistical journals, I was also testifying at city council meetings about my findings; advising major city police chiefs; and exchanging ideas with judges, attorneys, and advocates. In addition, for the last five years, I directed RAND’s criminal justice research program and gained a lot of experience in managing personnel, budgets, and strategies in a research organization. I think the combination of my academic research and practical and management experience made me a good fit for the job.
What is your role as deputy director?
I am responsible for NIJ’s scientific offices covering social science, technology and physical sciences, and forensic science. I work closely with the office directors and their staffs on issues big and small. The most challenging questions are about how NIJ can affect and improve our nation’s criminal justice system. What issues need greater attention? What kinds of projects should we invest in? Which projects show the greatest promise? Where do we need to take more risks? Along the way toward answering these questions, we need to constantly tune into the input of practitioners, cultivate the next generation of criminal justice scholars, maintain a fair and transparent review process, and be good stewards of public dollars.
Describe some of your specific goals and challenges as you begin your tenure.
NIJ’s greatest strategic asset is its ability to make investments in ideas. Therefore, almost all of our challenges revolve around how to get the best return on those investments. We need to have a good process for synthesizing the key concerns that practitioners face in police, courts, and corrections so we’re investing in the right ideas. We need to make sure our review process is fair, transparent, and efficient. We need to take some risks on ideas that might take a decade to mature. And last, we need to make sure the results of our investments are having an impact on the field. There are several examples of NIJ successes in each of these steps, and I will be working toward improvements in each.
Other than you and the statisticians at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we’re not aware of many other statisticians within the DOJ science-related units. Does your hiring signal an increasing appreciation for statisticians across the DOJ?
I have never had the sense that there is a lack of appreciation for statisticians, but rather that there are few statisticians thinking about justice issues. Admittedly, numerous fields such as health care and pharmaceuticals, finance, and environmental sciences compete to attract statisticians. I would like to attract more statisticians to justice system research. Forensic science, for example, is a key area in which there is much room for new statistical analysis and research. The NAS report recommended that NIJ “nurture and grow the pool of researchers involved in criminal justice research.” I will make sure the statistical community is part of that pool.